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Tibetan Silver – Artifacts to Counterfeits

This is a phenomenon that I have witnessed in my own lifetime – the complete transformation of “Tibetan Silver” from authentic and rare crafts to a generic term that can be applied to virtually anything silvery in color, a synonym for “Hilltribe Silver”, and a similar story of the rapid wholesale export of a culture’s handwork to collectors leading directly to a mass market term for unrelated merchandise.

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Traditional Tribal Silver is Elaborate SIlver

Leaving it to the reader to contemplate its causes, here are some examples of the real things, treasured, prayed over, placed around children’s necks.  And then some of the modern fakes that carry a reputation few will ever be the wiser to.  Hopefully this will help clear some things up and spare buyers from deception.

First sign of a probable authentic piece - Huh? What the heck is this?

First sign of a probably authentic Tibet piece is the “Huh? What the heck is this?” Test

I would not have predicted it.  Having the benefit of friends with exotic, tribal interests when I was young, I was first introduced to the wonderful crafts of Tibet at a Renaissance Faire.  It wasn’t long before I watched stores stocked with these goods appear in nearly every college town in the country.  It made perfect sense for students – the ornaments were elaborate, bizarre, and incredibly affordable.  Everyone with a willingness to take risks, plus an open mind towards the world’s cultures, could find satisfyingly ornate ambiguity in the work.  Buddhas, when depicted, were charmingly rustic and understated, and writing, where it appeared, was in mysterious unintelligible Sanskrit, and there were lady Buddhas, fiery toothy demons, skulls, flowers, something for everyone.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make. This piece was made primarily with chisels, carving into the metal.

Rings were chunky but never too gaudy.  Jewels, when present, were modest hand ground cabochons in earthy tones – pale turquoise, faded red coral, and lemony amber. The workmanship was routinely rough, and often had natural grime, scratches, dings.  Instruments had been played, drumskins dried out, Woodwork smelled of yak butter (quite seriously, it was used to seal and preserve) and the necklaces strung on cord perhaps even had some trace of the previous owner’s smell.  This all meant a young person with an eye on world exploration could own quality exotica, free of any evidence of modern manufacturing. The reward for having a taste for tribal aesthetics at that moment was to be able to decorate the dorm room with merchandise that looked like it belonged in a museum.

This is a ritual drinking bowl made out of a human skull.  Yes that's right, and though illegal untold numbers of these made in with the mountains of other stuff.

This is a ritual bowl made out of the top of a human skull. Yes, that’s right. While illegal, untold numbers of these made it through Customs among the mountains of other strangeness.

I wouldn’t have guessed that in a few decades, the plentiful stuff would actually run out.  Supply and demand, we usually assume, is in effect when low cost means there is an abundance of the material.  But there is a major difference between a steady supply, like sea water, and a sudden supply produced under pressure, like a broken fire hydrant.

Every colored stone had a trade value, often even beads are carefully framed.

Every colored stone had a real trade value; beads are carefully framed with the greatest care possible.  Even when skills are wonky, effort was considerable and the results are charming.

What happened, in the simplest of terms, is that everyone in Tibet, for one reason or another, began to sell their family jewels and handmade objects in the mid-20th century. As more people bought them, more was paid, and the faster their export began to cascade until cheap export knockoffs took their place. I write this with a mind towards showing how “Tibetan Silver” underwent a dramatic change in quality, from the authentic cultural production of a once massive, ancient Silk Road kingdom to a generic synonym for New Age fashion jewelry, so I’ll spare you economic theory.  This country was so isolated that not very long ago it was still using turquoise as a currency in certain parts. But faced with modernity meant being strapped for cash, not blue rocks.  This meant exporters with the guile were able to quickly fill up shipping containers with quality goods.  How could nimble hippies dancing on the campus green with their unusually fine jewels know that their favorite incense-burning import store was the compliment to something like a Las Vegas pawn shop halfway around the world?

Early export work uses the indian technique of combining stampings with wire applique to good rustic effect.  You could hear the buyers telling the TIbetans, "More amulets huh?  Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings."

Early, made for export work, uses the Indian technique of clustering stampings with wire ornament, and more lavish use of stones.  Rustic skill and imagination are still evident.  You could hear buyers telling Tibetan smiths, “More amulets, huh? Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings.”

The real stuff shows attention to detail doesn't rely on wire applique.

The real non-export stuff shows attention to detail, and doesn’t rely on wire.  Note the chisel work, even on the bail.  Attention to the bail is a sign the jeweler wasn’t being rushed in a production shop.

The influx of Tibetan imagery, artwork and handcrafts really began its stride in the late 1980s and hit full steam ten years later.  It begs the question, which came first, the popular sympathy here for Tibet that created interest in its culture, or the appearance of its affordable goods as ambassadors for growing interest in Tibet?  To be sure, there was a disconnect – Americans were faced with the uninterpreted presence of altar pieces, temple statuary, sacred paintings, and other accoutrements of a country that almost seemed to have just decided one day to give up its religion. One was usually able to learn the object’s name from the shop owner, and could tell it was soaked in symbolism… but that was about it.  Its every context was a mystery, and that appealed to many, granted a kind of permission to project into these objects new ideas that might age and tarnish immediately into something like legacy, history or tradition.  To be sure, these shops gave many American kids a taste of tribal tradition the likes of which they had no other access to.

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Two more examples of unhurried, skillful rustic chisel work and stamping.

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Without precision tools, a different kind of quality comes from the ample free time of pastoral living, which made intricate traditional crafts possible.

Fast forward just fifteen years, and most of these shops were gone. It’s striking to realize there was such a brief window, a fraction of a generation, that would have even noticed.  Along with the pre-owned goods, during that import bubble workshops of local craftspeople appeared to produce export goods, reasonable reproductions of the more popular elements they had already been making.  These came pouring in alongside the finer and more rustic crafts, and helped keep the prices low.

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A common export ring, with the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Skillful hand-pierced lettering, with stamped appliques and wire decoration.

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A modern wax casting of a similar Sanskrit ring, no craftsman (and no Tibet) involved.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship.  Painstakingly hand repoussed, once a cherished possession.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship. Painstakingly hand repoussed, with protective cloth covering, this was once a cherished possession.

A recent, though elaborate, imitation of a traditional altar.  Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill.  The lavish use of stones on a sacred object is a giveaway.

A recent imitation of a shrine. Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill. The lavish use of stones is off for a sacred object, they are too-bright (dyed), and the faceted low-grade gems a bizarre new novelty.  Not at all a traditional object.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree marks it as recent, and designed for consumers.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree and production shop uniformity marks it as recent, designed for export.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor skill.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor workmanship.  The Buddha (Chenrezig) is most certainly cast (resin and turquoise powder), and not a carving.  Probably made in India.

What has claimed the term “Tibetan Silver” today is truly bizarre, considering that nothing more than strung beads of the color scheme blue and red, or anything silver and mass produced at all, is apt to be called this today.  As if the metal itself is suggested to carry some mountainous property in it.  Whole websites in dubious English are dense with marginal New Age descriptions of Tibetan symbols, illustrated with counterfeit examples. The shift in meaning is so diluted, I can’t help but wonder if there is as much a demand in Asia as America for the lost mystique of Shangri-La, that has helped create the artificial response to demand.  It wouldn’t be right to call the dilution an amnesia, since the exotica poured in and vanished before consumer awareness had a chance to even register it. All that most people know about the curious time when another culture’s handcrafts came raining down on the streets of College-town America is the name of that country, and maybe who the Dalai Lama is.

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A very Tibetan symbol, the Double Dorje (crossed lightning), shown in a clean authentic style.

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A nicely carved casting of modern manufacture, possibly even designed on a computer. Probably from China, one giveaway that it’s not real is the tidy jumpring bail.

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A very poor workshop version, again with the modern bail.

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An extra tricky one, this looks believable, but all the bright colors scream Chinese dyed stones, while the filigree just says sweatshop.

It’s similar to the way Egyptian and Mesoamerican symbols had their own American luxury goods fads in the 20s and 50s respectively, riding carrier waves of authentic items that led to stylistic imitations. The difference is that the real work came from a pool of archaeological goods discovering a market, while in Tibet it happened in real time, their culture was leaving, sold off, and as it was floating across the sea it was already mid-transformation into becoming pop culture kitsch here.  It has become “retro” even though the originating culture is still breathing, and in some places producing the authentic work!

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These are from Harper’s Bazaar

From Harper's Bazaar

Welcome to the Global Village, Tibet

To close, allow me to horrify you with some search results that turn up for “Tibetan Silver”.  None of these are authentic, all of them rely on the skills and techniques of traditional Tibetan crafts being forgotten, and reduced to a magical consumer legend within a word:

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This one sold as “Vintage Tibetan Retro”. Yikes.

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Glue and gravel for the tourists, Mexico style.

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This “Tibetan Antique Necklace” is so horribly false, it shouldn’t claim to come from any country, anywhere.

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Leftover dyed bone beads from a girl scout craft bag = “Tibetan Jewelry”

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Red and blue palette plus imagination makes for a great Tibetan costume… for someone in Istanbul.

Oaxaca

In 2008 a little vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico turned up a few local jewelry themes.

 

Crosses of Yalalaga

The Cross of Yalalaga is usually an equilateral cross with three pendant crosses attached.  It was all over the place, on rooftops as weathervanes, in ceramic, and especially in silver.  Locals explained it was around long before Cortez showed up.  Oaxaca is a UNESCO heritage site, as it is home to quite a few totally distinct indigenous languages.  You can see some of these pieces have been Catholicized, some have not.  I was especially curious about the winged heart shape variation – some are even double-winged.

More Crosses of Yalalaga

Too bad I was still getting the hang of that camera.  In heavier versions of the pendant, the design wold reveal more distinctive transepts than a simple equilateral cross – distinctly resembling the sweeping wings of a diving bird.

Bird Earrings

Beautiful filligree works seemed to cary the unique fondness for the downward swooping bird.  Above, traditional wire forming methods show Spanish and indigenous influence.

Earrings

Variation: Double Birds and Crescent

In other pieces the bird theme continued as two birds facing each other, forming a symmetry meeting at the beak and feet.  This might explain the ‘winged heart’ on the smaller Yalalaga pendants, the heart shape being te silhouette of this symmetry.  Again, we have the downward crescent suggesting a swooping motion.

Contemporary Necklace

This magnificent piece of silver jewelry seems to have everything but the kitchen sink, but suggests indigenous metaphor in its arrangement.  The collar fan area is an array of winged cherubs, with an enclosure of a hand holding a heart.  Below it are a pair of ‘eyes’ that suggest the ancient Nahuatl god of rain and harvest, Tlaloc, that can be found concealed in the painted motifs of colonial churches.  If this is the case, we have another clue: two hands descend from his eyes, appearing to deliver the disc of the sun and the moon.  Could the hands’ gesture double as the silhouette of two birds?  The heart shape is easily made this way.  Could the descending bird represent the sun, or light?  And the pendants on the Yalalaga rays of light, raindrops, or seeds?

The trip to Oaxaca was a satisfying survey of syncretism between religion and culture.  Something in the jewelry of today retains threads of previous cultural incarnations: people who once made ornamental earplugs now make silver filligree birds and crosses.

Zapotec Earplugs